Since adolescence, I had nurtured vague notions of unknown kin until I felt a sudden, strong pull, a sense of the need to act now or lose the chance. Would it be too late to search for my birth mother?
I ventured down the path back to the State of my birth and adoption, South Carolina, with the help of a group of adoptee advocates. At two Philadelphia meetings they oriented and encouraged me, and gave me instructions, a roadmap, and a firm, but gentle push to seek the woman who had relinquished me forty years earlier. My husband supported me on my journey, accompanying me to the meetings, and giving me the space to embark on my intensive, at times obsessive quest for biological family.
My tools were a pen and a yellow-lined pad, a landline phone, a portable electric typewriter, white bond paper, envelopes, postage, and determination. We had no computer nor internet in the early 1990s. I gave no thought to future DNA testing; how it would come to alter methods of ancestral search.
My birth records were sealed by the State—I had only a certificate of baptism and adoption—and I was permitted only non-identifying information from Catholic Charities. My heart fell when I read the data from Vital Statistics. It showed the name of the hospital where I was born and a few other facts, but my adoptive, not my biological parents’ names were typed onto my Amended Birth Certificate.
I carried on. A team of search angels accessed my records for a fee, and I was thrilled to learn my birth mother’s married name, and a half-sister, Karen, with the same last name. But my birth mother’s maiden name was the key.
I focused my Greenville search with the help of two local researchers; a historian, and a genealogist, for cemetery lists, old farm and land maps, and sheets copied from phone directories. The family name, a common one, would mean I had days of cold-calling ahead of me. I finally spoke with a second cousin who was happy to help me contact my half-sister and my birth mother. The joy of that day!
She’d kept me in her heart. Had she the wherewithal, she might have been a seeker, too. Mother and child reunions were highlighted on TV in those days, but she had only the means to immerse herself vicariously. Her neglected health, instability, and a lifetime of losses, left her longing, with little recourse.
She’d lived in Texas for thirty-six years with an abusive man. The daughter she had with him died tragically at sixteen.
Although they had been estranged for thirty years, my sister hurried to our mother’s side–her next of kin. I feel sure it was that call, and her journey home to South Carolina, that signaled me to search for her.
Karen facilitated our reunion by bringing our mother home with her. Call it fate, call it love and compassion, or intuition, but she wasn’t aware of my existence, let alone my actions. Our mother had kept the secret of me. She had given us both up, one to family, one to adoption. I’d felt an urgency, the pull of hearts, and we three bonded one year before our mother died. We found peace in knowing.
Mary Ellen was adopted in the State of SC in 1952 and has no legal access to her original birth certificate, although she has been in reunion since 1993, and can trace her ancestry by DNA. Her personal essays have been published in many literary publications. Her memoir, I Must Have Wandered: An Adopted Air Force Daughter Recalls, is forthcoming.